Yoga practitioners have been mourning the May 18 death of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Indian guru who popularized Ashtanga, an athletic style of yoga. A series of demanding postures, or asanas, performed while maintaining control of one’s breath, the ultimate goal being samadhi, or transcendence, Ashtanga is yoga at its most uncompromising: practiced daily, ideally at dawn, and in six strict, unvarying sequences through which yogis must advance. During the past decade, Ashtanga has gained adherents, particularly among results-oriented urbanites. It’s earned a reputation as yoga for type A personalities, an amusingly contradictory notion.
On June 14, many of these yogis will gather at a memorial (complete with vegetarian food and chanting) to pay their respects to Jois, who died at the age of 93. Hosted by Donna Karan and Eddie Stern, a student of Jois and director of Manhattan’s most exclusive Ashtanga studio, the event will celebrate “the very great flash of lightning that was Pattabhi Jois.” Yet even those who have never heard of Jois are likely familiar with the guru’s legacy: the “power,” Vinyasa, and “flow” styles taught at gyms and studios are all offshoots of Ashtanga. “Many people are unwittingly doing practices based on his work,” Stern says. “The entire power-yoga movement is based on his teachings.”
How Jois helped promote yoga is a story that begins where it ends, in Mysore, India. Jois began his yoga career at 12; he eventually taught the local maharaja. In 1948, Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, with the aim of “experimenting with the curative aspects of yoga.” In the late sixties, Westerners began to travel to Mysore and, upon returning home, to teach what they had learned. But it was after Jois himself first visited California in 1975 that Ashtanga took off. The ascendancy that followed owes as much to Jois’s legendary charisma—many thousands of students flocked to his classes—as to the peculiar accord between Ashtanga and American values: sweat-based spirituality for a nation of self-actualizing multitaskers. Exercise with higher purpose. It also helped that hard-bodied celebrities like Gwyneth, Sting, and Madonna became associated with it.
Today, the once-exotic discipline has become nearly as mainstream as jogging. Jois was perhaps a fitting guru for an American audience. A husband and a father of three, he was hardly an ascetic. As David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga and student of Jois, puts it: “He was not a monk or a renunciate; he was fearless about combining the path of yogi with the path of participant. He never saw it as separate from our lives. He thought that anyone could attain to yoga if they had the desire and the enthusiasm.” How very American of him.